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Healthy Hips in Hatha Yoga

By Nicole DeAvilla Whiting

Ask anyoneeven a doctorto put their hands on their hips,


and chances are that all hands will go to their waists. Ask new
yoga students to stand with their feet hip-joint distance apart,
and youll see the legs widen beyond the typical, anatomically
correct distance of 3-4 inches. Sadly, youll see some (yes,
mostly women) with perhaps a not-so-good self-image, set
their feet farther apart than the width of the entire pelvis.
So where are those hips anyway?

Hip Joints 101


The hip joint is the place where the femur (upper leg bone)
connects to the pelvis. Both the iliac crest (i.e., the top of the
ilium: upper part of the pelvis) and the greater trochanter (the
large protrusion on the outer side of the femur, near but still Nicole leads Ananda
below the hip joint) are often mistaken for the location of this Yoga Therapy Teacher
elusive, but otherwise relatively simple, ball-and-socket joint. Training at The
Expanding Light,
You can find it by pressing your fingers deep into the crease
Anandas retreat in
that is formed when you bend forward from the hips and
northern California. Her
oops, if you dont know where your hips are, you will
background also includes
probably bend from your waist, and well be right back where
sports medicine and
we started from. So instead, stand up and bring your knee to
chiropractic
your chest. (If your balance is not the best, or if you are
physiotherapy. She also
reading this in high heels, I suggest that you do this from a
teaches yoga and
seated or supine position, as in the photo below.) Your hip
meditation near her home
joint is deep behind the crease that you create between your
in Marin County, Calif.,
lower abdomen and your thigh.
and leads an Ananda
The inferior (lower) end of the femur meets the tibia and fibula Meditation Group.
to form (along with the supporting soft tissue) the knee joint.
From that point upward, the femur angles laterally upward
until (approximately) the greater trochanter, where it turns
back in medially and ends in a ball-
like surface (the femur head). The
femur head inserts into the
acetabulum, the socket shaped
depression formed where the three
sections of the pelvis (ilium, ischium,
and pubis) connect. The ball-and-
socket joint is cushioned by cartilage
and synovial fluid.
Hip Movement
The hip has a fairly wide range
of motion in most directions:
flexion, extension, adduction
and abduction with lateral
rotation. Abduction without
lateral rotation is limited to
about 40 degrees, because at
that point the superior femoral
neck bumps into the upper
edge of the acetabulum,
restricting the motion. The
degree of both lateral and
medial rotation varies widely,
as can be attested by
practitioners of hatha yoga.
Some find that Padmasana
Bones near the hip joint (with iliopsoas muscle)
(Lotus Pose) and Virasana (in

this case, the version thats a cousin of Vajrasana, in


which one sits between the heels after medially
rotating the hips a significant amount) are simple
matters of limbering some of the muscles around the
hip joint, while others find those poses to be exercises
in futility and/or exercises to guarantee knee injury.
More on this later.
To keep the ball in the socket, so to speak, there is a
thick joint capsule that is reinforced by ligaments, the
strongest being the iliofemoral ligament. To further
support this joint, which is key to locomotion, large
muscles criss-cross the joint to stabilize it and provide

the power for walking, running, jumping,


and a host of other moves on and off the
dance floor.
From above the hip joint, some of the deep
pelvic muscles that support and move the
hip include the piriformis, psoas, iliacus,
gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and last
not but not least the largest muscle of the
body, gluteus maximus. (Because the psoas
and iliacus attach to the femur at the same
Major ligaments of the hip joint
spot, they are sometimes referred to jointly as a single muscle: the iliopsoas.)
The muscles that support and move the hip from below are the quadriceps femoris (four muscles
in one), sartorius, hamstrings (a group of three muscles), adductors (a group of five muscles),
and tensor fasciae latae. And there are more muscles very close to the joint, such as the quadratus
femoris, which, along with five other muscles, form the group known best as the hip rotators.

Asanas and the Hips


Have you ever been in a class with a teacher who poetically and metaphorically instructs
students to open their hearts, soar with the birds, or create space in their hip joints? We often
view these instructions as nice sentiments that can help one to go a little deeper into the pose, but
not as specific anatomical instructions. However, if you are in my class and I ask you to create
space in your hip joints, I will mean what I say, and I will expect you to be able to do it. If I tell
you to get taller and take a load off of your hip sockets, I will expect you to do exactly that as
well. Are you saying, Good luck!?
No, its quite possible. Engaging proper core and postural muscles, as well as the varied
movements of yoga practice, have helped students stand up taller and literally take a load off of
their otherwise squished spinal discs. I have had several students literally gain as much as half an
inch of height from their yoga practice!
Okay, I know that there are no discs to squish in the hip joints. So how can one create more
space in the hip joints while those joins are bearing weight, as in a normal standing position, or
Virabhadrasana II, or Parsvakonasana?
The key lies in four littleand little-
knownmuscles called the obturators
(obturator internus and obturator externus)
and gemelli (gemellus superior and gemellus
inferior). Better known for helping to create
rotational and other movements of the hip,
they also combine to lift the pelvis up out of
the hip socket (when the femur is in a fixed
position, as in standing asanas) or pull the
femur down away from the socket (when the
pelvis is in a fixed position, as in inversions
such as Sarvangasana). Together they form a
sort of hammock support for the pelvis.
To understand how this works, visualize a
normal hammock strung between two trees.
The femurs are like the two trees, and the
pelvis is like the body of the hammock, i.e.,
the part that you lie on. The obturators and
gemelli are the strings that connect the body
of the hammock to the trees. If those Posterior view of obturators and gemelli
hammock strings shorten, they will lift the
body of the hammock. In the same way,
when the obturator/gemellus strings contract, they lift the pelvis off the femur heads.
Naturally these small muscles can use all the help they can get from properly engaged postural
muscles, and in certain positions, other core muscles as well. (See the Engage Your Core?
article.) These larger muscles usually get most of the credit, but without the obturators and the
gemelli, it may be a sinking proposition.
What is the best way to engage the obturators and the gemelli? Um well poetic
visualization! It might be rather ambitious to try to selectively engage any one of these muscles.
Instead go for the sensation of lifting the pelvis up out of the hip joints, and know that those
muscles will make it happen. Feel the pelvis lifting up out of the hip joint as the spine extends
upward to soar with the birds (or something like that).

Hip Health in Asana Practice


For the hip joints to be healthy, we need them to be both strong and flexible. Imbalances and
improper movements and/or posture can take a toll on the hip joints themselves, but often their
neighborsthe knee joints and the lower backwill suffer the consequences and be injured.
Learning and teaching proper body
mechanicsas well as never forcing
movements or positionsis essential for
preventing injury to the hips and
surrounding structures as well as for
rehabilitating them. For example, bending
forward from the waist instead of bending
forward from the hip jointsespecially
when combined with tight hamstringscan
put a lot of pressure on the lumbar spine
and cause injury.
Range of motion in any jointnot just in
the hipis a matter, not only of muscle
flexibility, but also of the shapes of the
bones and the angles at which they come
together to form the joint. In the case of the
hips, the shapes and angles of the femur
and acetabulum (hip socket) determine the point at which the superior femural neck contacts the
superior rim of the acetabulum. Obviously, this bone-hitting-bone action (called compression)
prevents all further movement in that direction, regardless of muscle flexibility.
Because those bone shapes and angles vary widely among individuals, there are wide disparities
among different persons potential maximum range of motion in the hip joints (and other joints
as well), independent of their muscle flexibility. And as I mentioned earlier, many people can
never go safely into asanas such as Padmasana and Virasanasometimes because they lack
muscle flexibility, but other times simply because of the way their bones fit together. And some
people may be able to do one of those poses safely, but not the other. Trying to force oneself into
these positions can lead to debilitating and permanent knee or back injury.
So be hip. Know how to move from your hips, not your waist. Know thy hips, and respect their
range of motion. And dont forget to give them a little space!